DON’T BE SCARED: “COYOTE” IS “TOP GUN” WITH CHICKS

MISS KITTY AND her bar-gal posse have finally taken over the saloon.

Now, the critics have dismissed “Coyote Ugly” as a 101-minute Miller Lite commercial. They mutter something about idiot plots, marshmallow dialogue and inane predictability.

Well, of course. Yet in its defense, the movie simply follows in the Jerry Bruckheimer tradition of “Top Gun” and “Con Air,” except without the planes and the special effects unless you consider five women writhing in beer and dousing themselves with the soda gun as fine examples of movie magic.

Those “Top Con” movies made it as machismo training films. Still, if you took away the toys from these coming-of-boyhood flicks, would lines like “You don’t have time to think up there. If you think, you’re dead” (“Top Gun”) really provide better philosophy than “We never followed through on a single thing and I think that’s what makes us special” (“Coyote Ugly”)?

We (the unspoken we, which is I) suspect that the hoary head of patriarchal hegemony might be rising again. We suspect that the wholesale (and mostly male) condemnation of “Coyote” is a deliberate attempt to squelch the feminist ideology inherent in the film.

This beer-soaked visual feast is a testament to 20th-century girl power, which is the ability to flaunt your inner tramp and still not be taken seriously as a woman but at least you can get center stage. These girls admirably lift freak sideshows of pitiable derring-do and fratboy antics vodka-fueled fire-breathing or soda gun stunts into PG-13 mainstream erotica.

Maybe “Coyote Ugly” is frightening more than just male critics. Maybe “Coyote Ugly” is frightening to the cinematic elite for its homage to and legitimization of the under-appreciated classics of ’80s film. Certainly the proletariat heroism and waterlogged choreography of “Flashdance” imprinted its legacy upon this post-pop-modern exploitation of wet, working-class chicks.

Even more, “Coyote Ugly” is “Cocktail” with an estrogen chaser.

It casts a blinking neon spotlight on the era’s greatest misunderstood magnum opus. To enlighten minds who were under the legal drinking age in 1988 or watched it in an inebriated haze, “Cocktail” starred a young, charismatic Tom Cruise, who reportedly churned out this film while waiting for a “Rain Man” rewrite. He starred as a hopeful boy looking to make it big in New York City.

“Coyote Ugly” stars a young, charismatic Piper Perabo, a hopeful girl looking to make it big in New York City. As for sex appeal, when Cruise shook his cocktail, “buttons were popping, skirts were rising.” When Perabo starts singing (or rather, lip-syncing it’s really LeAnn Rimes’ voice) along with a Deborah Harry song on the jukebox, there’s “not a dry seat in the house.”

The parallels don’t end there. Bryan Brown, the special-effects guy from “F/X,” played Cruise’s Australian bar mentor. Kevin O’Donnell plays Perabo’s Australian boyfriend. Cruise’s character Brian Flanagan is from Queens, where people talk funny. Perabo’s Violet Sanford is from South Amboy, New Jersey, where people talk funny.

Cruise, as the “the last barman poet” (“I see America drinking the fabulous cocktails I make, Americans getting stinky on something I stir or shake”), recites his lines while standing atop a bar. Perabo is a hopeful songwriter who sings while standing atop a bar.

Cruise and Brown, the Siegfried and Roy of the bar scene, juggle shakers. The girls juggle and shake. Cruise pimps himself for rich women. Perabo auctions off her soon-to-be boyfriend to pay a $250 fire marshal fine.

The compelling difference between the films (warning: predictable “surprise” endings given away here) could be what’s frightening both the standard-bearers of manhood and movies.

Cruise has to lose a friend to suicide before he opts for Elisabeth Shue, twins and a small humble bar. Perabo learns her lessons without getting pregnant, assaulted or losing a loved one (dad John Goodman only breaks a leg). She not only gets a famous country-western singer (Rimes, of course) to record her songs, but she repeats her Aussie boyfriend’s line, though with careless girl-power insouciance: “What does it feel like when all your dreams have come true?”

Oh, how far we’ve come.

Vera H-C Chan is a teetotaling Times staff writer.

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